Obama’s speech: Defining moment

By Steven Greenhut: Guest Columnist

If Sen. Barack Obama goes on to win the presidency, his March 18 speech in Philadelphia dealing with the firestorm that erupted over his former pastor’s incendiary remarks will be analyzed for decades – as a pivotal point not just in his campaign, but in the art of modern presidential speech-giving.

Unlike many of his other talks, which have featured high-sounding rhetoric that, upon close examination, comes up a bit empty, this one was direct and forthright, an admirable feat given that he was dealing with perhaps the most painful subject in American society: race.

In a sermon several years ago, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright said: “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards.” “God d— America,” he said in another sermon, after detailing how our nation has treated African Americans as second-class citizens.

Obama has, legitimately, been asked why he continued to attend a church led by a man who thinks this way, and why Wright remained a trusted adviser. Obama could have simply denounced Wright, but instead made the nuanced argument that Wright’s church “embodies the black community in its entirety . … The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.”

There’s no downplaying the symbolic significance of a man with African ancestry winning the presidency. This is especially significant given that, rather than play on racial differences, Obama has been running a campaign based on “unity.” (Those conservatives who mock this idea ought to remember that he is tapping into the same sentiment that President George H.W. Bush tapped into with his talk of a “kinder and gentler nation.”)

But while many of us have thought that Obama’s election would be significant on the racial-unity front, few of us would have guessed the race issue itself would divide the Democratic Party. I’ve experienced Schadenfreude at that development, given that Democratic leaders have been eager to expose racial wounds when it works to their advantage by, say, accusing Republicans of racism when they fail to embrace racial quotas. Then again, the Republican “Southern Strategy” was built on a troubling appeal to white grievances, and it succeeded in turning the once solidly Democratic South into a bastion of Republicanism.

Some of Obama’s speech sounded surprisingly conservative. Obama tied economic problems in the black community to the legacy of legalized discrimination, but also to the “erosion of black families” and to welfare policies that have worsened the problems. He said that many whites have legitimate concerns: “(W)hen they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.”

I’m not the only one to find such dialogue to be uplifting, forthright and of a far different sort than we’ve become accustomed to hearing from politicians. Charles Murray, who was unfairly savaged by liberals as a racist for his book, “The Bell Curve,” wrote on National Review: “Has any other major American politician ever made a speech on race that comes even close to this one? As far as I’m concerned, it is just plain flat out brilliant – rhetorically, but also in capturing a lot of nuance about race in America.”

Obama faced a different dilemma than the one faced by Republican hopeful Mitt Romney, even though both problems focused on church issues. Romney was being challenged on the basic tenets of his Mormonism, not the radical politics of a pastor. But Romney’s speech didn’t soar – it sounded like it was written by consultants who were trying solely to remove political impediments, because that’s exactly what it was. It’s too early to tell, but Obama’s talk might be the defining moment of his candidacy.

The other remaining candidates – Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican John McCain – have some vulnerability here also. Clinton has referred to Rabbi Michael Lerner as her spiritual adviser, and he recently penned a column blasting “America’s Ethical Perversity.” Sen. McCain recently celebrated his endorsement by fundamentalist anti-Catholic preacher John Hagee, who has argued in a sermon that “(t)he sellout of Catholicism to Hitler began not with the people but with the Vatican itself.”

The last word on the situation comes from Jon Stewart of the “Daily Show,” who said, “So at 11 o’clock a.m. on a Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults.”

Steven Greenhut is columnist at The Orange County Register. Contact him at: